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Why is Turkish foreign policy under attack?

Turkey faces growing pressure to retreat from three locations: Idlib, where Turkish forces are trying to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe; Libya, with which the Turks concluded a defense pact; and the Eastern Mediterranean, where Turkey is defending its rights under international law.

Turkey faces growing pressure to retreat from three locations: Idlib, where Turkish forces are trying to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe; Libya, with which the Turks concluded a defense pact; and the Eastern Mediterranean, where Turkey is defending its rights under international law.

Needless to say, Idlib sets the stage for the hottest conflict among the three. How the crisis in Idlib ends will shape the future of Turkey’s presence in Syria. Moscow’s escalation suggests that it does not want Turkey to play a role in Syria’s political transition. It seems that Russia wants a withdrawal of Turkish troops from the remaining safe zones that Ankara liberated from terrorist groups. It goes without saying, Kremlin could not care less about Bashar Assad forcing millions of Syrian citizens into exile.

If Moscow exercises full control over the Syrian theater, it will have no reason to heed humanitarian warnings from Europe or the U.S. Western politicians and reporters, who make moral statements about the situation in Idlib, will start urging Turkey to take in more refugees. This is why Turkey, together with Germany and France – which stand to experience Idlib’s spillover effects – have been putting in efforts to mount pressure on Russia.

President of France Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel asked Russia’s President Vladimir Putin for a cease-fire which was a welcome development. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s phone call with his Russian counterpart was of critical importance as well.

If Bashar Assad ends up taking Idlib, Turkey won’t shoulder the refugee burden alone. Kremlin will be in a position to pull the strings of European democracies at will. Imagine how Russia, which already endorses far-right movements to promote a new Europe, could reshape the continent with the threat of another refugee wave. That is why statements from the U.S. and the European Union about Idlib are positive, but ultimately not enough to protect their own interests.

At the same time, there is a coordinated effort underway to force Turkey to take a step back from Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean. The Libyan warlord putschist Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who refused to sign the cease-fire agreement at the Berlin Conference, demands an end to Turkey’s military presence in Tripoli in return for a cessation of hostilities. Yet there is no doubt whatsoever that a withdrawal of Turkish forces from the Libyan capital would result in Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s ouster and the death of Turkish agreement with Libya.

For the record, it does not take a genius to figure out who urges Haftar to ask for the removal of Turkish forces. By concluding agreements on maritime jurisdiction and security cooperation with Libya’s legitimate government, Turkey put Greek, French, Egyptian and Emirati interests in the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa at risk. If the Turks abort their mission and turn their back on active foreign policy in the face of difficulties, they will play into the hands of those countries. In that case, Greece will operate as it pleases in the Eastern Mediterranean, as France does whatever it wants in Africa. Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will operate without restraint in the Gulf and the Middle East, and Russia and Iran will do as they please in Syria.

The pressure to retreat from those areas does not come exclusively from outside. There are people in Turkey who keep asking why Turkish troops are in those places. They argue that Turkey should repair its relations with everyone and refrain from using hard power in an attempt to lobby for a Turkish retreat from high-risk areas of competition like Syria and Libya. Ironically, the external charge of expansionism and the domestic opposition’s objections against hard power fit together like puzzle pieces. Together, they urge Ankara to fall back into line and assume its traditional position. Pretending to promote diplomacy, critics impose a new road map on Turkey. Their ultimate goal is to get rid of Erdoğan and reverse his foreign policy.

The problem with that approach is that Turkey won’t be able to combat terrorist groups like PKK and the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) by retreating from areas where it resorts to hard power. Nor can the Turks stop the imminent refugee wave from Syria. Without hard power, there is no way for Turkey to undo an international attempt to limit its maritime jurisdiction in the Gulf of Antalya either. All in all, Turkey has to remain active to protect its national interests in this age of great power competition – whether in diplomatic talks or on the ground.

Politicians who urge Turkey’s leadership to rely on soft power instead of military might are stuck in the time before the Arab revolts. By calling on Ankara to slow down, they actually tell the Turks to make their peace with dependency and passivity.

[Daily Sabah, 24 February 2020]

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